The Lyric Essay and the Effect of Art

What is a “lyric” essay? Well, if you Google the phrase, virtually every result includes the name John D’Agata, the noted young writer who’s written a couple books which show off experimental essays. D’Agata teaches at the University of Iowa, the best writing school in the country, but this semester he is on-loan to Scripps/Claremont, and I’m taking his class called “The Lyric Essay.”

The class focuses on the experimental aspects of the craft — in other words, the weird stuff. Essays which blend poetry and prose, which emphasize emotion over fact. Long essays which might contain only one sentence, for example, or an essay with a million footnotes, or an essay with only footnotes. When I first learned how to write, formality ruled the day. I’ve loosened up since, but I still cherish the plainness and clarity that is characteristic of good, formal writing that attempts to advance an explicit point. So reading “lyric” essays can be frustrating: they usually challenge the boundaries of grammar and organization and try to transmit their point not from the words themselves but through an emotional effect the words create. The hardest point about reading experimental stuff is figuring out when the wackiness is a shallow cover-up versus an inventive way to communicate something meaningful. When famous writers break all the rules of writing, we praise it as innovative and interesting. When no-names do so, we wonder if they’re just dumb or confusing.

In class, we recently read (viewed?) the book Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy, an historical essay / collage of text and photographs. In the introduction, Lesy makes the following point which I think captures the spirit of a lyric essay:

This book is an exercise in historical actuality, but it has only as much to do with history as the heat and spectrum of the light that makes it visible, or the retina and optical nerve of your eye. It is as much an exercise of history as it is an experiment of alchemy. Its primary intention is to make you experience the pages now before you as a flexible mirror that if turned one way can reflect the odor of the air that surrounded me as a I wrote this; if turned another, can project your anticipations of next Monday; if turned again, can transmit the sound of breathing in the deep winter air of a room of eighty years ago, and if turned once again, this time backward on itself, can fuse all three images, and so can focus who I once was, what you might yet be, and what may have happened, all upon a single point of your imagination, and transform them like light focused by a lens on paper, from a lower form of energy to a higher.

If you read it slowly, it makes sense and is a beautiful way of celebrating how art can affect you on different levels — sometimes independently, sometimes all at once.

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